Children of the Sun at the National Theatre
The brick wall obscuring the set from view lowers at the beginning of each act, offering an insight into a bourgeois stronghold in Russia. Bunny Christie’s design presents the luxury of space: a conservatory, cloakroom, hallway, garden and large patio doors fill the wide Lyttelton stage – room enough for the myriad chaotic relationships within the household.
Geoffrey Streatfeild plays Protasov, oblivious to his wife Yelena’s desperate appeals for love and involved only in his chemistry experiments. Protasov is an unlikely hero, the shuffling scientist in his socks attempting to avoid the human relationships unfolding around him, and preferring instead to seek solace in empiricism. In contrast, the rest of the characters live in a blaze of emotion. Lucy Black plays Melaniya, Protasov’s wannabe-neophyte, and is doggedly obsequious without being shrill. Paul Higgins’s breezily sarcastic Boris is the perfect antidote to Black’s persistence, but his dry wit is not enough to persuade Protasov’s sister Liza to marry him. Liza, played by Emma Lowndes, is the only one in the house with a socialist conscience, but this is increasingly ignored as she succumbs to mental illness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the estate wall that divides them, the villagers are massing.
Howard Davies has a keen awareness of the rhythms of speech and the nuances of conversation that make the dialogue in the play so breathtakingly natural. Andrew Upton’s adaptation has contemporised the text, bringing the language forward into a bouncy modern diction that tightly coils the action until its explosive release at the climax of the play. It’s for plays like this that clichés such as sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat and heart-in-your-mouth were invented. Davies’ cast brilliantly maintains the tension of the unfurling domestic drama and balances it with the larger political themes of the play.
This is how plays can be, should be – vital and tense, but with pockets of humour that endear the characters to the audience. Children of the Sun is a perfect example of what the National continues to give to the London theatre scene: new versions of old texts delivered by inspired directing and tight and talented casts. Incendiary in every sense of the word – Gorky would be proud.
Children of the Sun is at the National Theatre until 14th July 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.